State legislators in Honolulu have again taken a stumble aimed at protecting the Kona origin name on in-state sold retail roasted coffee packages with a new kona coffee labeling bill. Kona, the coffee farming origin best known for its high price, non-distinct flavor and a zealous farming community has been embattled on the issue of package labeling for nearly 30 years.
A new Kona coffee labeling bill approved by the Agriculture committee of the Hawaii Senate on Thursday is intended to prohibit the deceptive use of the word “Kona,” on package labels, except as it may appear in trademarked brand names. If passed, the law would be enforceable only within the State of Hawaii.
Farming groups argue that vague language in the bill does little to clarify the meaning of “Kona coffee” and imposes tougher labeling restrictions on independent farmers in Kona, while overlooking the sometimes questionable blending practices of marketers that happen to posses the word “Kona” in their trademarked brand names. Even in the event of the bill’s passage and signing into law, the Agriculture Department Chairman himself admits that sufficient resources do not exist to enforce its provisions.
This latest attempt to prop up the ailing “100% Kona coffee” golden goose again falls far short of taking substantive steps to will improve future prospects for the beleaguered origin. As I commented last year when a similar bill was introduced and ultimately failed, labeling addresses only symptoms of a much larger value issue in Kona. There are truly exceptional coffees in Kona but those coffees are an exception representing a small fraction of the total coffee produced — unless substantive action is taken to improve the average quality, flavor and subsequent value of coffees grown in Kona, I see no consumer market will continue to pay such high prices for what is typically an inconsistent and mediocre product.
Steps must be taken to 1) raise the overall quality of coffee produced, roasted and brewed in Kona (while simultaneously working to lower labor and other production costs), 2) develop an objective system of grading that accurately communicates value to consumers and 3) expand research, breeding and processing options to create new and desirable flavor profiles or characteristics that will attract modern commercial specialty coffee buyers — and consequent new global market opportunities.